Internews Network has lost its bid to continue working in Uzbekistan, the Central Asian nation where it has operated for ten years to support independent media. After ten minutes of deliberation, the Tashkent City Court on Tuesday denied Internews Network’s appeal of a court order last month to shut down the US-based organization’s Uzbekistan office.
‘We expected our appeal to be denied because it’s been obvious from the start that the authorities want to boot us out for political reasons,’ said Catherine Eldridge, Internews’ Country Director for Uzbekistan. ‘But we’re still very disappointed. We’ve put up a good fight and we’ll continue to fight this decision through the courts, starting with an appeal to the review board of the Tashkent City Court. But it looks like we really have to go.’
The US-based non-profit media organization began operations in Uzbekistan in 1995 where it has helped develop the country’s independent, private television stations through trainings, technical assistance and support of local news and information programming.
According to Uzbek legislation, Internews is now obliged to close its office in Tashkent and cease all operations in Uzbekistan. However, all its activities were effectively suspended more than a year ago when the Central Bank froze its bank accounts without warning or explanation.
Last month the Tashkent City Court found Internews Network guilty of a number of ‘gross violations’ of Uzbek law and told it to close. In August, two Internews employees were convicted of conspiring to publish information and produce TV programs without the necessary licenses. The liquidation order was based on these convictions as well as a number of other violations.
These included: using the Internews logo without registering it first with the Ministry of Justice, referring to itself as ‘Internews Uzbekistan’ instead of ‘Internews Network Representative Office in Uzbekistan’, “monopolizing the media,” and carrying out activities without getting prior permission from the Ministry of Justice. Such permission is actually not required according to the Bilateral Agreement Regarding the Cooperation to Facilitate the Provision of Assistance between Uzbekistan and USA under which all American NGOs work in Uzbekistan,
Internews projects in Uzbekistan have been supported by the US Agency for International Development and EuropeAid (the international aid branches of the US and EU, respectively) and the US State Department.
In the last 18 months, there has been a crackdown on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those supporting the development of democracy. In September another foreign NGO, IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) was suspended for six months for allegedly conducting activities not in line with its charter and not registering its logo with the Ministry of Justice. Many believe that the Uzbek authorities fear a repeat of the popular uprisings that brought down the governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
In May, relations between Western governments and the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov worsened after Uzbek forces brutally quashed a popular uprising in the city of Andijan, killing hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters. In July, Uzbekistan gave the US military six months to leave its base at Karshi-Khanobad.